The potato blight that arrived in Europe in the summer of 1845 was, like the potato itself, an American export. The fungus that caused the blight was a microscopic organism that would not be identified scientifically for another fifteen years. But even after its identification, no effective treatment for the blight would be found till a Frenchman named Millardet would notice that roadside crops remained free of blight because they had been sprayed with copper sulphate and hydrated lime by French agriculturalists who wanted to keep poor people from stealing their property. It took Millardet three years to develop a commercially saleable pesticide. This was in 1885 – 40 years too late for the millions of desperately poor Irish farmers who relied on the potato for almost all their nourishment and who wouldn’t, in any case, have been able to afford Millardet’s invention.
The spores of the fungus traveled through the air with lightning speed whenever the weather was warm and wet, attacking crops, decimating whole fields within hours, and rotting the potatoes to a foul-smelling mush. This sudden stench was the thing most feared, for it announced to the farmer that his hopes for a harvest were dashed. But in Ireland, as nowhere else, the sickening odor, carried on the breeze of late summer, became the perfume of death itself.
In the Middle Ages, Ireland had been a place of fabulous agricultural fertility. The early Irish monks and nuns, who tried for a time to be as strict with themselves as the hermits of the Egyptian desert, found that it was just about impossible to starve properly in Ireland, because the country abounded in delicious food of all kinds – “leeks from the garden, poultry, game, salmon and trout and bees,” as a salivating monastic poet of the seventh century put it. Indeed, Irish hospitality and generosity were legendary, for the Irish monks opened their doors and their cupboards to England and all Europe, educating whoever came to them without charging for tuition, books, room, or board.
But by the eighteenth century, Ireland had become what we today would call a Third World country, a colony of England, in which all the good land had been taken from the Irish by English planters – a place where everything from seed to salmon streams was owned by others, and the Irish had become unwanted poachers and vagrants on the rich soil that had once been theirs. The economic rape of Ireland began with its forests, the thick stands of trees that once covered every hillside and provided the habitat for Ireland’s abundant game. The Irish nobility, understanding that there was no future for them, took flight, gentlemen often taking military commissions in continental armies and founding new businesses like Hennessy Cognac in France. They left behind them a dispirited population of peasants who could do nothing but watch their world come to an end. A Tipperary poet of this period bemoans the flight of the local Irish lord and the ruin of his castle in these words:
What shall we do for timber?
The last of the woods is down.
Kilcash and the house of its glory
And the bell of the house are gone,
The spot where the lady waited
Who shamed all women for grace
When earls came sailing to greet her
And Mass was said in the place.
My grief and my affliction
Your gates are taken away,
Your avenue needs attention,
Goats in the garden stray.
The courtyard’s filled with water
And the great earls where are they?
The earls, the lady, the people
Beaten into the clay.
In the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured Ireland three years after his American travels, wrote to his father:
You cannot imagine what a complexity of miseries five centuries of oppression, civil disorder, and religious hostility have piled on this poor people.... [The poverty is] such as I did not imagine existed in this world. It is a frightening thing, I assure you, to see a whole population reduced to fasting like Trappists, and not being sure of surviving to the next harvest, which is still not expected for another ten days.
And this was in 1835, ten years before the Famine began!
Pushed further and further away from their dark ancestral fields, the majority of Irish farmers found themselves trying to feed their families from ever smaller plots, so arid and stony that no one else wanted them, sometimes, as one old song has it, even attempting to plow the rocks themselves. Dispossessed of their property because of their race, deprived of all civil rights because of their religion (including the right to object to anything that was being done to them), the “mere Irish,” as the conquerors were fond of calling us, had sunk as low as possible. When former American slave Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845 to rally support for the campaign to abolish slavery in America, he wrote of the Irish,
Never did human faces tell a sadder tale … these people lacked only a black skin and wooly hair to complete their likeness to the plantation negro. The open, uneducated mouth – the long gaunt arm – the badly formed foot and ankle – the shuffling gait … all reminded me of the plantation, and my own cruelly abused people.
In such circumstances, the miraculous potato, first brought to Cork by Walter Raleigh, made continued existence possible, because its astonishing yield, even in stony ground, enabled a farmer to feed his family, though the land he worked was hardly bigger than a postage stamp. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, therefore, the mere Irish had come to rely almost solely on the potato, which had even brought about a population increase, making Ireland – with 8.5 million people – the most populous country in Europe.
But the circumstances of this population were perilous. Though a great landlord might own as much as 60,000 acres, an Irish peasant owned an acre or two if he was lucky, nothing at all if he was unlucky – in which case he worked his landlord’s fields as a serf. The yield from these fields never reached him or his family: it was virtually all exported by his landlord for cash. As the landlords grew ever more prosperous, they and their cousins in England began to put out the story that the Irish were born to their condition by nature. Their poverty was the result of their own laziness. Thanks to Catholic superstition, their minds were hopelessly clouded. It was a scientific fact that the Irish were naturally inferior, and there was nothing that could be done about it really. In 1845, just before the first famine struck, a young American visitor recorded in her diary this encounter in the West of Ireland:
The poor peasants, men, women, and children were gathering seaweed, loading their horses, asses and backs with it, to manure their wretched little patches of potatoes sown among the rocks. “Three hundred and sixty-two days a year we have the potato,” said a young man to me bitterly.... “Because the landlord sees we can live and work hard on them, he grinds us down in our ways and he despises us because we are ignorant and ragged.”
In the first year of the blight, the poorest people sold whatever they had – overcoats, fishing gear, the family cow – to buy grain. When the blight returned in 1846, they had nothing left to sell. They stole turnips when they could and ate weeds. Many fishermen had already pawned their tackle and nets; others, weakened by hunger, could no longer row. People began to comb beaches and rocks for shellfish, seaweed, and moss, till every beach in the West of Ireland was stripped bare. And with potatoes scarce, food prices began to soar. As the Quaker William Forster wrote:
When there before, I had seen cows at almost every cabin and there were besides many sheep and pigs in the village. But now all sheep were gone; all the cows, all the poultry killed; not one pig left; the very dogs which had barked at me before had disappeared; no potatoes, no oats, workmen unpaid; patient, quiet look of despair.
In July 1846, Britain’s Conservative government fell and was replaced by that of the Liberal Party. The new Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, who was put in charge of famine relief, was Charles Trevelyan, a man whose faith in unregulated capitalism was absolute and who believed passionately that government must never interfere with the hidden hand of the market. If the Irish were starving, said Trevelyan, it must be their own fault; and God himself had sent the potato blight for the “moral and political improvement” of the Irish people. They must take control of their own lives and stop abusing British charity.
Thus was the stage set for Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Hunger, which produced a potato crop of only 2 million tons, as opposed to the 15 million tons that had been produced in 1844, the year before the blight. The Irish obliged Charles Trevelyan’s ideals for them by dying in droves, whole villages becoming ghost towns overnight. Serious riots broke out at ports, where hungry people could not bear the sight of abundant Irish grain and meat being loaded on ships for export. Her majesty’s government, which refused to commit the sin of interfering with the market, had no scruples about protecting the market’s many export ships with the full force of British firepower.
As tenant farmers began to default on the rents they owed their landlords, who were also the food exporters, more and more families became homeless, evicted from their tiny hovels by landlords who wanted the land for more efficient farming and were only waiting for the excuse to evict. Private charities, such as Quaker soup kitchens, were overwhelmed; and bands of walking skeletons began to roam the countryside. People died in ditches, green foam issuing from their mouths because they had tried in their last moments to eat grass. As the death toll mounted, corpses were thrown into huge pits; many were never buried at all. Some of the walking skeletons reached the government workhouses, hellholes where even small children could be deprived of food and placed in solitary confinement for such lack of sobriety as playing a game or owning a toy. It is a judgement on this form of British charity that many preferred to die rather than endure it. Still, Benjamin Jowett, later Master of Balliol College, Oxford, remembered one political economist telling him that “he feared the famine of 1848 would not kill more than a million people and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.” That incredible quotation must be placed against this indelible picture left us by a concerned Quaker:
We entered a cabin. Stretched in one dark corner, scarcely visible from the smoke and rags that covered them were three children huddled together, lying there because they were much too weak to rise, pale and ghostly, their little limbs perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone and evidently in the last stages of starvation.
These children, who died over 150 years ago, are our children, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. They belong to us. Since we cannot save them, and the million more who perished like them, we have an obligation not to forget them. We should also remember, of course, those who escaped – the 2 million and more who left Irish shores for new worlds. But even many of these perished in the course of their passage in the foul holds of the coffin ships that bore them over the ocean.
None of this had to happen. Historians are just beginning to take account of the enormity of what did happen – the refusal by what was then the richest country in the world to mend the injustice that it was solely responsible for and allow the innocent to live. 1848, the very year the English economist hoped for more than a million deaths, saw the formation of Young Ireland, a movement that called for the ownership of Irish land by Irish people. One of its founders, John Mitchel, the son of a Presbyterian minister, wrote the epitaph for these terrible times: “The Almighty indeed sent a potato blight,” said he, “but the English created a Famine.”
Today, even conservative economists no longer hold to the cruel theories advanced by Charles Trevelyan; and it is hard to imagine the United States of America, the richest country in the world, allowing such a catastrophe to take place at its borders. But the poverty that precedes famine is still everywhere present in our world, as close as Mexico, Haiti, and Central America, as near to us as Roxbury and the South Bronx. We continue to blame the poor for being poor, we continue to advance the theory that children must suffer hunger for their parents’ supposed irresponsibility. As the sun makes its journey west today, half the world’s children will go to bed hungry. One out of seven is facing actual starvation. There is no lack of food in our world, any more than there was in nineteenth century Britain; the only lack is in our willingness to distribute it justly. There is an organization in Washington, D.C. called Bread for the World which lobbies Congress for the adequate distribution of food. Joining this organization is one way of remembering those who starved. For all the hurt and hungry children in our world today are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. They all belong to us.
But there are many ways of remembering. The numerous Famine memorials dotting North America also serve as a permanent and eloquent reminder that there is no economic theory so sacred that it deserves to be held in higher honor than a hungry child and that there is never any good reason for anyone to starve to death. For more information on Bread for the World, call 1-800-82-BREAD or visit www.bread.org This article was published in Irish America, Dec/Jan 2000